Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, is visiting Japan this week, in a trip that will raise eyebrows in the U.S. and western European capitals.
For Gerasimov is none other than the controversial creator of the "Gerasimov doctrine," an expanded theory of modern warfare that includes the deployment of information tools and is widely thought to have guided Russia's interference in the 2016 in the U.S. presidential election. In Washington he would be close to persona non grata. In the European Union meanwhile, Gerasimov is subject to sanctions for his role in Moscow's violent intervention in Ukraine.
But for Tokyo, the Dec.11-13 visit of Russia's top uniformed officer is entirely consistent with Japan's broader Russia policy. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Japan followed Group of Seven partners in introducing sanctions. However, in contrast with Western measures, the Japanese sanctions are merely symbolic and designed to have no meaningful impact. For instance, while Japan imposed visa bans on 23 Russian individuals, the names were never released.
In fact, far from trying to isolate Russia, Japan has been actively pursuing engagement. Ignoring the advice of then U.S. President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Sochi in May 2016 to announce a "new approach" to relations, which features an eight-point plan for economic cooperation. To oversee implementation, a new ministerial post was created, the only cabinet position to mention a foreign country by name. Additionally, Abe has continued to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin whenever possible, racking up an impressive tally of 20 meetings.
The Japanese leadership also shows little concern about engaging with individuals sanctioned by the West. Prior to Gerasimov's visit, Japan had already welcomed Nikolai Patrushev, Valentina Matvienko, Sergei Naryshkin and Igor Sechin, all figures targeted by EU and/or U.S. sanctions. Furthermore, in October 2016, it was reported that the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation would lend 4 billion yen ($38.5 million at the time) to Sberbank, a sanctioned Russian lender.
Seeking a territorial breakthrough?
Japan is under no obligation to abide by sanctions imposed by Western partners. Nonetheless, it is unusual for Tokyo to so obviously distance itself from Washington.
The customary explanation is that Japan needs to take a softer approach to Russia to preserve its chances of resolving the longstanding dispute over the Southern Kurils, a group of islands off the coast of Hokkaido that were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945.
Abe would dearly love to secure the return of this "inherent" Japanese land. Yet, he would need to be delusional to believe that a few economic sweeteners will lead to Russian concessions over Iturup and Kunashir (Etorofu and Kunashiri in Japanese), which account for 93% of the disputed territory. These islands are strategically significant as a gateway to the Sea of Okhotsk, an important area for Russia's nuclear submarines. It is unthinkable that Moscow would transfer this territory to a U.S. ally. This was emphasized by Putin in June 2017 when he warned that any transfer of territory could mean that "tomorrow some [U.S.] bases or elements of missile defense will appear there. For us this is absolutely unacceptable."
Underlying security motivations
The territorial dispute is therefore insufficient as an explanation for Japan's dogged pursuit of closer ties with Russia. Instead, as indicated by Gerasimov's visit, security considerations play a major role.
Unlike its partners in the G-7, Japanese strategists do not regard Russia as a significant threat. Russia may be a revisionist power in former Soviet territories, but in East Asia it is seen as a status quo actor that can assist Japan in dealing with North Korea and China. Japan's "National Security Strategy" makes this explicit by describing cooperation with Russia as "critical ... in securing peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region."
Specifically, Japan aims to neutralize the threat of China and Russia becoming too close. This objective became pressing in 2014 when isolation from the West forced Russia to embrace China more tightly, including by agreeing to high-tech arms sales. The election of Donald Trump has also encouraged Japan's Russia policy since his America First rhetoric during the campaign reinforced Japanese concerns about being left alone in the region facing a hostile Sino-Russian united front.
Tokyo also hopes it can elicit Moscow's help in dealing with North Korea. To this end, rather than condemning Russia's continuing ties with Pyongyang, the Japanese leadership has encouraged the Kremlin to use its leverage. This explains why Tokyo opted not to follow Washington in including Russian entities on its list of secondary sanctions. This strategy was seen to have paid off when it was reported that Abe played an instrumental role in persuading Putin to agree to strengthened U.N. sanctions in September.
Based on this view of Russia as a potential partner and not a probable threat, Japan has been quietly developing security relations. Most prominent is the establishment of the "2+2" meetings between the countries' foreign and defense ministers. The first "2+2" was held in November 2013, followed by a second in March 2017. Consultations between the heads of the countries' Security Councils have also become regular, while military exchanges have intensified. In addition to Gerasimov, the head of the Russian army Oleg Salyukov visited Japan from Nov. 27 to 30. Joint exercises have been continuing, most recently with the Hamagiri, a Japanese destroyer, visiting Vladivostok in November to take part in search and rescue drills.
Japanese security cooperation with Russia remains low-level and explorative. Nonetheless, Tokyo is clearly willing to prioritize closer ties with Moscow despite the tense relations that currently exist between Russia and the West.
What is more, so long as perceived threats from China and North Korea remain intense, the logic for Japan to develop better relations with Russia will endure. This was certainly the message communicated by Foreign Minister Taro Kono ahead of his November visit to Moscow. In his words, "Japan-Russia relations conceal unlimited opportunities. If this hidden potential is released and a genuinely strategic relationship is established, this will benefit not only the Asia-Pacific region, but the entire world." Those of Japan's partners who take a more jaundiced view of Russia's international role should take note.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.